RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK -- RTI International's $230 million-plus contract to foster local government in Iraq remains on track despite increased violence and the uncertainties surrounding planned elections, its project manager says.
"It's Iraq; things can happen and have happened to foil the best plans," Peter Benedict said. "If something occurs like [the massive uprising in] April again, it will be hard, but I think we're on target."
Benedict returned to the United States in August after nearly 16 months leading the project from Baghdad. He now works out of RTI's headquarters at Research Triangle Park.
Because of the dangers, RTI is now relying mainly on its "local staff" of about 1,400 Iraqis to do most of the work, he said. The 75 or so workers from other countries live and work in secure areas such as regional RTI hubs housed on U.S. military bases.
Iraqi local officials go to the hubs for RTI's major training programs and conferences; other training is done in the field by the Iraqi staff.
The project is still operating throughout the country, except in a few particularly dangerous locations such as the Sunni Triangle cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Benedict said. Access to places such as Najaf has improved with the wane in violence there.
Mobility for workers on the project, though -- particularly foreigners -- has been severely restricted since an uprising in April swept much of the country. That makes work particularly hard for RTI, because it works in most communities in the country. The company helped establish more than 700 provincial and local councils and has worked with the staffs of nearly 400 local government service departments, such as town sanitation departments.
In 2003, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded RTI a one-year contract for the work that was worth up to $167 million, though the company had needed to bill only about $150 million when the year ended this past spring. Then it got a one-year extension, which will probably be worth about $80 million.
The lower costs for the second year, RTI officials have said, were in part due to greater reliance on local workers, who don't need housing and other assistance.
It's the biggest contract ever for the 46-year-old nonprofit company. It's also one that has forced RTI to deal with things its founders probably never foresaw, including setting up shop in a war zone, using private military contractors for bodyguards and a high-profile kidnapping when one of its workers was held by insurgents during the April uprising. He was later released.
The threat in Iraq has abated in some areas but has grown in most others lately. In the past 18 months, four Iraqi RTI workers have been killed in the violence, though the company doesn't think that any killings were connected with their jobs, RTI spokesman Patrick Gibbons said.
RTI's team leader for the province that includes Tikrit, who was visiting the home office for a few days recently before returning to Iraq, said that it would be nice if the security were better but that Iraqi staff members are getting the work done.
The workers were chosen regardless of their political background, and some are former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party. That's one reason they're trusted by the local population, Suhair al-Mosully said.
"When they want to learn about something or complain about something, they come to us," she said. "They believe that RTI is a neutral entity that they can talk to."
Al-Mosully, whose family left Iraq in 1977 and eventually immigrated to the United States, has been working on the project since July 2003.
She lives on a U.S. military base and said that she's not particularly worried about her own security, even on the rare occasions that she moves around the province with members of RTI's security detail.
She cites progress such as a business center in her province that RTI has spearheaded. It's due to open soon and will provide modest loans to farmers and for small businesses. One focus will be on helping war widows, who are numerous in the province.
Despite its work establishing local elected councils, RTI won't be involved in national elections in January. That's not part of its mission, Al-Mosully said.
"Elections, no," she said. "Voter education, yes."
There is disagreement in both countries over whether to drop the idea of voting in some of the most violent parts of the country -- such as the city of Fallujah, now under attack by American troops.
Some say that the elections wouldn't be legitimate unless held everywhere. Others say that security problems mean Iraq will have to accept the notion of limited voting, or the election won't be possible.
Benedict said if security improves, he thinks progress in Iraq will leap forward.
The work RTI has begun will probably take five to seven years, Benedict said.
"You want it to stick," he said. "These things are really important, and you just don't want to pull out too soon."